May 25, 2024

MLB’s starting pitcher problem: Solutions, pitfalls and a hot take

The Windup Newsletter ⚾ | This is The Athletic’s daily MLB newsletter. Sign up here to receive The Windup directly in your inbox.

Good morning! We’re dedicating today’s newsletter to one topic: saving the starter. We look at the various ideas that have been proposed, some of the pitfalls and why this problem isn’t going away easily. I’m Levi Weaver, here with Ken Rosenthal — welcome to The Windup!

Why save the starting pitcher?

Today, Jayson Stark and Ken have published a three-part series aimed at solving the problem of the vanishing starting pitcher. At this point in the season a decade ago, 63.5 percent of starts lasted at least six innings. This year? 40.5 percent.

So, why is that a problem? There are two main reasons:

• Entertainment: As Jayson and Ken point out, baseball (like any sport) is more interesting when you get to see the big stars face off against one another. They equate the starting pitcher to the quarterback in football — that’s the guy the fans want to see face off against the other guys!

• Injuries: Part of the problem is how the starters are disappearing. It’s not always a five-and-dive early exit. Of the 10 active pitchers who have won a Cy Young award, nine are currently on the IL. One prominent theory: Pitchers have been incentivized to go full-bore for five innings, rather than aim for longevity. It makes strategic sense, short-term — would you rather have five shutout innings, or seven innings with two to three runs allowed?

So there’s the problem. Now, how do you solve it?

That’s where it gets tricky.

Ken’s Notebook: Verlander and Scherzer sound the alarm

From one of the three stories I co-wrote with Jayson Stark about how to return starting pitching to prominence:

On days Justin Verlander starts, he sets aside nine Gatorade towels in the dugout. After every inning, he uses one to wipe off sweat. If he goes through all nine, he ends up with his desired outcome: A complete game.

“That’s my goal,” Verlander said. “Doesn’t happen very often anymore. But that’s my goal.”

Verlander, 41, and Max Scherzer, 39, are literal throwbacks, pitchers who began their careers in the 2000s, when starters considered 200 innings a minimum gauge of effectiveness. Nearly two decades later, they are baseball’s active leaders in games started and innings pitched. And in a sport they elevated, they’re alarmed at how starting pitching is now diminished.

Last season, as teammates with the New York Mets, Verlander and Scherzer engaged in deep conversations about restoring starting pitching to prominence. Commissioner Rob Manfred caught Verlander’s attention when he said before last year’s World Series, “There’s a lot of fans who feel like the change from, ‘What’s today’s pitching matchup?’ to ‘Who’s the opener today?’ has not been a positive.”

The question, as we explore at length, is how to solve the problem. Scherzer, in particular, has ideas, some of which he suggested as a member of the MLBPA’s executive subcommittee during the last round of labor negotiations in 2021-22. Both he and Verlander believe the sport needs to act with urgency and enact rules changes to force the issue and return the starting pitcher to his century-long position at the top of baseball’s marquee.

“Right now, it’s an epidemic. Throw as hard as you can for as long as you can, have a couple of big, nasty offspeed pitches and the second you get in any trouble, which analytics say is usually the third time through the lineup, you’re out,” Verlander said.

“When I came up, you had to hone your craft in the minor leagues. You had to show you could control multiple pitches in the zone before you were ever able to come up. That’s kind of fallen by the wayside.”

Verlander was just getting started.

“The problem is, even if MLB says, ‘We want to bring back the starting pitcher,’ the analysts that are now running these teams are going to say, ‘We’re not going to be better for that. We’re going to be better off having a kid who throws 100 with a nasty slider do it for three innings.’ If he goes five, great.

“That kid is going to do better than if I told him, ‘Don’t throw 100. Throw 95. Hit the corners and try to get eight innings out of this.’ That’s what the numbers say. I don’t agree with those numbers. But in an analyst’s world, everything is black and white. They don’t know how to value those extra innings, so they ignore it.”

What other options are there?

One idea is to tie the fate of starters like Shota Imanaga to the use of the designated hitter. (Kamil Krzaczynski / USA Today)

We saw baseball address big problems recently by implementing a slew of new rule changes. Too little action in games that took too long? Hello shift ban, hello pitch clock. And the results have been fantastic.

But how do you disincentivize pitchers from throwing their best pitch as many times as possible before handing it off to a parade of relievers who are doing the same — especially if that strategy leads to fewer runs allowed (see: more games won)?

Ken and Jayson’s third article gives 12 suggestions proffered by pitchers, executives and coaches in the game. But each one seems pre-loaded with possible drawbacks.

• Limit teams to six relievers? Maybe, but are we certain that higher reliever usage won’t lead to more injuries there? Remember, we’ve limited the number of times that players can be optioned per season. If we’re simply sacrificing reliever arms to bring back longer starter outings, I’m not sure that’s a solution.

• Ideas aimed at limiting the efficacy of pitchers — banning the sweeper and/or pitches over 94 mph — also seem ill-advised, since it would almost certainly lead to an explosion in offense (hello, more pitching changes) and it seems like an absolute nightmare to enforce.

• What about the double hook? It ties the use of the DH to the starting pitcher remaining in the game. The only problem? It diminishes the value of every DH in the league.

So maybe an altered version, where the DH can stay in, so long as the starter hits one of three predetermined numbers — six innings, 90 pitches or three runs — as suggested by Scherzer?

Sure, maybe. That one might have legs.

(Don’t) save the starting pitcher?

There’s one solution I haven’t seen proposed. What if we just … lean into it? What if this is simply baseball evolving into the throw-hot-gas era?

What if starting pitchers aren’t quarterbacks, but something more akin to … position players? The best hitter doesn’t get to take every at-bat until he gets tired — he’s one of nine; everyone in the lineup gets to hit.

That share-the-load mentality on offense hasn’t taken away from the sport’s ability to market the position player stars. So, what if the solution isn’t to go back to the golden era of the starting pitcher, but to lean hard into the future, asking pitchers to throw no more than two or three innings at a time, to limit injuries?

I can feel the eye rolls already, so let me pause for a moment: I have a hard and fast rule never to throw out a hot take I don’t believe in, just to get a reaction. So while I am asking the question, let me also add that my immediate reaction is: Gross. I hate it.

I want to see Bob Gibson versus Nolan Ryan, Pedro Martinez versus Roger Clemens.

But I’ve lived through interleague play, the wild card(s), replay, the universal DH, ghost runners and a pitch clock. And while I dislike some of those, I still love the game. Parts of it, I love even more than I used to.

Who knows. Would that idea even help decrease injuries? Would fans embrace a pitching staff with no true starting pitchers?

[Shrugs, twists up face]

I’ve just thought of about five (more) reasons why this might be a bad idea.

Handshakes and High Fives

This week’s Power Rankings take a look at how teams are doing compared to this time last year.

I kinda love this: Bobby Witt Jr. and Corbin Carroll ruined some of their own baseball cards… by “wearing” them in games, then signing them.

I don’t know how much of the Giants content is relevant for a national audience, but scroll down for Grant Brisbee asking “what would be the most entertaining animal to wander onto a baseball field?”

Shota Imanaga (0.96 ERA) put up five more scoreless innings in a Cubs loss yesterday. Could he be a candidate for the NL Rookie of the Year and Cy Young awards?

Greg Scholz updates us on the injuries to some of the game’s biggest stars.

Brendan Kuty tells us how Andy Pettitte became a mentor to Carlos Rodón.

Jim Bowden lists his 10 biggest surprises of 2024.

Mets catcher Thomas Nido hit Bryce Harper with a throw back to the pitcher. (Fortunately, it did not devolve into a Juan Marichal/John Roseboro situation.)

You can buy tickets to every MLB game here.

Sign up for our other newsletters:

The Bounce 🏀 | The Pulse | Full Time | Prime Tire 🏁 | Until Saturday 🏈| Scoop City 🏈

(Top photo of Verlander and Scherzer: Dylan Buell / Getty Images)